Opening night in Vienna at the Burgtheater, July 16, 1782. Actor Tom Hulce portrays Mozart in Amadeus conducting his breakout opera, Di...Thursday, February 23, 2012
The Amadeus Argument: Friend or Foe?
The Man. The Music. The Madness. The Murder. The Motion Picture...
There are two schools of thought when it comes to Amadeus. You're either appalled and offended or delighted and entertained by Milos Forman's film adaptation of Peter Shaffer's stage play. I've never met anyone without a passionate argument whereas the film is concerned. There's simply no in-between, unless you're in a state of metamorphosis from one side to the other, which is what happened in my case, as I've continued to grapple with establishing an identity between the scholarly and the accessible to advocate Mozart in the best manner and to the broadest possible audience.
When my 5th grade music class watched the film, Amadeus, it encouraged my curiosity and subsequent sleuthing which in time revealed my passion for the real man and artist. (My curiosity stemmed especially from those scenes of the film she skipped...what on Earth was going on?). I was completely swept away by the drama, theatricality, and above all, the music. Being 11 years old, I never could have guessed that a lifelong love affair had just begun. As a teen, I periodically rented Amadeus from my local video store as I began discovering Mozart's life and music (I think I paid enough in rental fees to cover the retail cost, but I eventually bought a copy myself!). The film came back into my life in a significant way when I attended graduate school in London. After making a short trip home for the holidays, it was one of the few items I managed to fit into my suitcase (suitcases, rather!) for the trans-Atlantic voyage back to the capital. Although I was studying Communications in Media, Arts and Design at the University of Westminster, the film encouraged me to simultaneously immerse myself into independent musicological study which was further supplemented by my travels to Salzburg, Vienna and Prague the following summer. Reaching this new threshold of understanding, the beaming bright Hollywood lights of Amadeus began to dim. It was slanderous. The truth was much more fascinating. I felt slightly betrayed. Just slightly.
Although I had always loved the film, being well aware of its fictional elements, my greater insight demanded that I begin to question its intention, its impact. I was temporarily disenchanted until I decided to take a closer, more objective look, and realized just how significant Amadeus really was, and still is, in its ability to bring audiences to Mozart on a larger scale. The ongoing sales, critical praise and interest in the film speaks to its success with current audiences. But more so than anything else, my own experience and my interaction with others revealed to me its true power and influence. The film served as an integral starting point for my conversations with others wanting to know more about Mozart, the REAL Mozart. They watched the film and then graduated to albums and biographies. Watching Amadeus wasn't an ending point for viewers. It was a starting point. I soon realized that its bad boy image was a facade. This was a work of real value. It was non-history advocating and encouraging history. And as I learned in my communications studies, any publicity, including "bad" publicity, can be beneficial.
The kernels of truth hidden within its script prove very alluring to those wanting to sleuth and learn about the real history. For example, although the portrayal of Constanze Mozart is inaccurate and offensive, it does touch on her brilliant entrepreneurial savvy that she used to save her husband's music for posterity after his death. Salieri was clearly the most maligned character of them all. He had nothing to do with Mozart's death, although it was rumored that he admitted to murdering him during his hospitalization in a mental institution in his final years (Amadeus is accurate about his suicide attempt). The rumor of murder was circulated, reaching the general population as well as the greatest musical figures of the day, including Beethoven. It was no secret that Mozart and Salieri were professional rivals, but the idea of murder was far fetched and not believed by anyone close to Mozart. Salieri did what was necessary to keep his position at Court, which meant creating bias and favor for his music, but his actions were not as malicious as those in the film. Alexander Pushkin's drama "Mozart and Salieri" was written in 1830, only five years after Salieri's death, paving the way for the fantasy of Amadeus.
Much to my chagrin (and horror), I realized in retrospect that the new-found criticism, rather concern, that I had expressed about the film, echoed a constituency causing far greater harm to Mozart's music than Amadeus could ever imagine: elitists. Since Mozart's lifetime and beyond, the aristocratic concert society has considered the music to be an exclusive privilege and this has inevitably perpetuated an image deterring the average person (my master's thesis addressed this topic). And this is exactly why I author The Chronicles, to eradicate myths and stereotypes to make the music, accessible, relevant and exciting, for it is all of this and much more. It's paramount for people to understand that Mozart himself wanted his music to live amongst us all.
Despite which side of the argument you're on concerning the content of the film, we can all agree that the reception of Amadeus was certainly worthy of Mozart, as was its soundtrack, under the direction of one of the greatest Mozart interpreters of our time, Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Amadeus was nominated for 53 awards and received 40, including eight Academy Awards (including Best Picture), four BAFTA Awards, four Golden Globes, and a DGA Award. In 1998, the American Film Institute ranked Amadeus 53rd on its 100 Years...100 Movies list. The soundtrack reached #56 on the Billboard charts, making it one of the most popular recordings of classical music. Ever. It was the best introduction to his music I could have ever received. I continue to adore its quality and sentimentality. I was fortunate enough to find it on vinyl a few years ago at a music emporium (See photo below). Pianist Ivan Moravec's performance of the 3rd movement from the Concerto in E flat K. 472 is truly immaculate. Listen.
Although inclusive of untruths which are at times offensive to the history and its beloved individuals, we must remember that this is first and foremost a work of fiction, a fantasia on the life. And as far as I'm aware, the creators of Amadeus have not claimed it to be anything other than what it is. There's always the risk of viewers believing the film is factual, which is the worst case scenario, but I believe the promise and potential of the film to inspire others to seek the truth far outweighs such risks. Amadeus is a friend to Mozart because of its production value, enduring themes, binding connection to popular culture, superb soundtrack and the inquisitiveness it elicits in viewers to discover the real man and his story. It's my hope that viewers will be inspired to learn more about the individual who gave so much to our world by way of eternal harmony. Shall we never lose the man behind the iconic veneer.